NASA's robotic astronaut is in space and preparing for its first space walk...
IF you've ever read a science fiction book, you'll know that the idea of using robots in space is nothing new. Almost all our space exploration efforts to date have been by robotic explorers -- space probes, exploration rovers, orbiters and landers; going way back to Sputnik 1 in 1957.
What's different about Robonaut -- or Robonaut2 (R2), as the second generation is called -- is its human-like shape and high level of dexterity, which allow it to literally 'lend a hand' to astronauts on space missions. In fact, R2's been operational onboard the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011, and was the first humanoid robot in space.
@ Johnson Space Center
My brother James and I met its ground counterpart at Houston's Johnson Space Center during our recent visit there. It had a head full of cameras, a 6ft-frame body packed with computing hardware, two arms and very clever hands.
Dr. Julia Badger (in picture) is a team leader responsible for Robonaut’s development at NASA’s Robotics Systems, Technology Branch. She sees R2 as more than just a simple aide, but as a testbed of future robotic technologies that could be used for space exploration missions.
Granted, R2 is a far cry from JARVIS in Iron Man, or even R2D2 in Starwars. But it is a highly capable robot with 50 patented or patent-pending technologies, according to NASA; is dexterous enough to use hand tools (and tweet @AstroRobonaut), and autonomous enough to do routine, repetitive and potentially dangerous tasks.
By the way, NASA’s robotic X1 exoskeletons and RoboGlove (used for medical rehabilitation and assistance for the disabled) are direct spin-offs of Robonaut’s hand and limb technology – demonstrating again how space-related STEM can have far-reaching impact.
One small step for robotkind...
As with any technology, Robonaut is a work in progress. The R2 we met at Johnson Space Center comprised of just the head, torso and arms (though wheels can be attached). But its twin on the ISS got its 'space legs' in 2014, and researchers at NASA are even now preparing it for its first space walk.
Using virtual reality technology, a crew member on the ISS will be able to remotely control R2 and perform tasks outside the space station using specially designed gloves, vest and visor. (Hey mom, who says there’s no future in gaming!)
Another interesting problem relates to safety. As Robonaut is designed to interact with and around humans, Dr Badger's team is looking at ways to ‘advance safe human-robot interactions’. In one demonstration, we saw a technician walk in front of the robot while it was lowering its arm. As soon as its arm came in contact with the technician, it stopped.
Robonaut is also embedded with a novel program that prevents it from exerting a force greater than 45Kg on any structure, equipment or crew on the ISS. This forced constraint makes is safe for us to shake hands with it, among other things.
One giant leap for space exploration
Clearly, there is a role for robots in space that go far beyond a space walk.
Imagine a robot stationed in a Mars habitat or Mars orbital vehicle (for the return trip home) that was capable of performing rudimentary maintenance in the absence of a crew. Or an astronaut remotely teleoperating a humanoid robot to replace worn-out components on a moon surface.
Robots can be programmed to travel further, faster and do more (with potentially more strength, speed and endurance); all with zero life support. Indeed, most of these robots need never come back. So what role then will humans play in space?
While there is much to be said for unmanned space exploration, the fact remains that our end goal is perhaps not exploration itself; but in ensuring the continuation of our human species.
What this means is that robots - like Robonaut - will continue to play important, albeit supporting roles, alongside their human explorers. Meanwhile, we look forward to seeing R2 venture out in its first space walk. One step at a time.